Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman struck an unusually conciliatory tone with regional rival Iran in a rare interview where he said the kingdom was working to resolve its differences with Tehran.
“All [that] we ask for is to have a good and distinguished relationship with Iran. We do not want the situation with Iran to be difficult. On the contrary, we want it to prosper and grow,” Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said in footage broadcast on Saudi TV on Tuesday evening.
The prince’s proffered olive branch contrasted starkly with his previous public remarks on Iran, a long-standing rival engaged in proxy warfare with Saudi Arabia for regional dominance across the Middle East.
In 2018 the Crown Prince told The Atlantic that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made Nazi dictator Adolf Hilter “look good”.
“They are both evil guys. He is the Hitler of the Middle East,” he said, adding that the “The Iranian revolution [created] a regime based on an ideology of pure evil.”
In a 2017 interview with Saudi television, the Crown Prince said he believed dialogue with Iran was impossible. “How do I convince these [people] of anything? What interests are there between me and them?” he asked.
His latest interview comes days after the Financial Times reported that Saudi and Iranian officials had held talks in Baghdad aimed at mending relations. While Saudi officials publicly denied the report, an Iraqi official confirmed the meeting to AFP news agency.
Regarded as the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia, the Crown Prince is seeking improved relations with Tehran as world powers and the US President Joe Biden seek to salvage the Iran nuclear deal that former president Donald Trump abandoned in 2018.
“I believe he sees a possibility of an opening with Iran,” said Ali Shihabi, a Saudi political analyst. “After years of sanctions and an Iranian desire to re-establish ties to the US maybe they can be convinced to change their behaviour.”
But the prince has also been put on notice by President Biden that after enjoying historically close ties with the Trump administration there will be “significant changes” in the relationship between Washington and Riyadh.
“The rules are changing,” Mr Biden said in February.
“We are going to hold them accountable for human rights abuses,” Mr Biden said, while making clear in a recent phone call he had spoken to the 85-year-old king Salman, not his son the Crown Prince.
The prince insists relations remained tight, however. “We are more than 90 percent in agreement with the Biden administration when it comes to Saudi and US interests,” he said.
Yet by his own metric that appears to be a downgrade from ties under former president Barack Obama, with whom he said in 2018 he had been “aligned 99 percent”.
That could be because President Biden released a declassified version of a US intelligence report concluding that the prince had approved the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi by a Saudi hit squad in the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate in 2018.
Prince Salman denied ordering the killing but told CBS News in 2019 that he took “full responsibility” for the “heinous crime”.
While the prince seeks to portray himself as a dynamic young reformer, he has been criticised for ignoring the rights of his subjects and engaging in reckless adventurism abroad.
In 2015, Prince Salman, who is also the Saudi defence minister, formed an Arab coalition to fight Houthi rebels in Yemen on behalf of the Yemeni government.
More than five years later the rebels still control the capital Sanaa and regularly fire missiles into Saudi territory.
A Saudi blockade on rebel-held areas has been criticised for worsening what the United Nations describes as the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe.
And at home, the prince himself has acknowledged that his economic plan has failed to meet targets.
“The economic growth in the non-oil sector was within an average that was not quite as we were aspiring,” he said in his latest interview.
The footage was aired on the fifth anniversary of the launch of his aspirational Vision 2030 plan to diversify the kingdom’s economy away from its dependence on oil.
Bloomberg Economics data also suggests Saudi Arabia has fallen short of the plan’s 2020 targets for unemployment and foreign direct investment.
Prince Salman predicted the kingdom’s unemployment rate will decline as the economy emerges from the pandemic in a “V-shaped” recovery, however.
“We have made great achievements in the last four years,” he said. “We want to even achieve more by 2025.”